What should we tell the children?

This is my Great Aunt Ada.

We came across the photo in an old album and it triggered a cascade of memories for my 91-year-old mother. Ada  had Tuberculosis. She lived with my grandparents for some time, when my mother was a child, and is remembered as a wonderful aunt. My mom adored her.

When Ada died, nobody told my mother. She vividly remembers being sent to a neighbour’s house while the adult family attended the funeral. Not that she was informed that there was a funeral. My grandmother told her that Ada had gone away to England.

My mom was old enough to understand that her beloved young auntie, who had been ill for a long while,  had died.

Although it happened eighty years ago, my mom has never forgotten that her mother didn’t tell her the truth…

10 thoughts on “What should we tell the children?

  1. Maurice Sendak wrote the following in the preface to “I Dream of Peace: Images of War by Children of Former Yugoslavia” (1993).

    “The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise; it hurts to know the children know. The children see. If we obfuscate, they will not see. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not see. Children make that sacrifice for our sake – to keep us pacified. They are remarkably patient, loving, and all-forgiving. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.”


    1. Megan and Edna, thank you so much for prompting me to think about the vital importance of truth. I have always had this philosophy with my own children, but at school, I sometime worry about “what will their parents think…”

      I’m going to use the preface from Maurice Sendak in my future!!!


      1. You are most welcome. I copied that quote from the book in a bookstore years ago. It is in a version of my professional portfolio and I’ve also posted it as a Facebook note. I copied it from the latter for my comment on this post. He is a very wise man.


  2. Children are more resilient than we imagine. We should tell them the truth. In class, when children face tragedy, we talk about it honestly. I also remind children that although bad things happen, more good things happen. When someone dies, it’s important to remember the good times. When bad things happen out of our control, it’s time to think about how we can make events like that disappear or diminish. A friend recently told me the story of her mother’s death and how they simply told her that her mother went away, finally it was a school mate who told her the truth–such a sad tale.


  3. This also reminds me of Reggio Emilia’s founder Loris Malaguzzi’s poem “100 Languages of Children”. Children know, they have eyes, ears, instincts, feelings and they learn early to “read” situations. Unfortunately when we do not communicate honestly, they also know. This makes a child doubt him/herself, when the information they receive is different than they are “reading”. It is one way we as adults shut down, bit by bit, the self confidence that has the capacity to grow in children when their feelings are justified and validated. Especially when information is fearful or scary for them, the open discussion helps them overcome fear of the unknown. The ability to empathize and understand comes naturally in the majority of children; with honesty and openess, making it age appropriate, the truth is always best.


  4. Thank you, everyone for sharing! In contemplating and commiserating on the various ways … and maybe the ‘right’ moment, to share with our teenage daughter that I may have serious health challenges aka possibly cancer… and when I finally dove in to share my status, her response was, with a gentle smile, “I was wondering when you were going to tell me.” She knew.


  5. I’ve been offline and just come back and seen your comments. Thanks for sharing your quotes, insights and personal experience. When I write this sort of post, it’s usually more for myself, not the sort of post I expect responses to, so I’m glad it resonated with you and has made others (and me) think a bit more…


  6. Yes, tell children the truth in an appropriate way for their age. Ori and Talya always knew that they had an aunt who had died before they were born, but it wasn’t untill one of their teachers was killed in a horrific terrorist attack that they actually took an interest in their aunt’s death, Over time with looking at photos ,videos and asking for stories about their aunt they have internalised the essence of who she was.


  7. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for. It’s hard to understand at what age it would be appropriate to tell a child that someone close to them has passed away, but saying that, I believe that we should always be honest with our children about the things that happen in life. There are ways to go about explaining things that are appropriate for each child’s age. I also believe there is a right time and a wrong time to bring things like this to the table. It is a difficult thing to decide, but overall, honesty is the best way to go. Sweeping something under the rug only delays heartache and delays the healing process.


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